Author Walter Tevis had a knack for writing stories that seem to adapt well to the screen. The Queen’s Gambit, written in 1983, is a current hit series on Netflix, but Tevis, who died in 1984, also penned The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Hustler, and The Color of Money. I have not seen The Queen’s Gambit (or any of the other films) but I can say that the novel reads very much like a screenplay. He gives the reader action and tension on nearly every page, but overall character development is pretty thin. I was really drawn in to the plot but often felt disappointed by his two-dimensional characters.
The Queen’s Gambit, set in the 1950s/early 1960s, is the story of Beth Harmon, a fictional character who is a chess genius. When the story opens, she is 8 years old and has just been delivered to an orphanage in Kentucky. Her parents are dead and we learn nothing more about them or Beth’s past. A handful of characters are introduced at the orphanage and it feels like they’re just there as useful props. Mr. Shaible is the janitor who teaches Beth how to play chess, but he never really says anything to her and his motivations for helping her are not addressed at all. Jolene is the older black girl at the orphanage who is, I guess, Beth’s friend? Tevis describes a few brief episodes between the girls, one of them featuring sexual aggression by Jolene toward Beth, but later in the book, Beth thinks back fondly on their friendship. Mrs. Deardorff is the director of the orphanage, a sort of stock authority figure who delights in being cruel and will forbid Beth to play chess after “the incident”. The orphanage provides its children with downers as a way to keep them manageable. Beth likes the pleasant feeling the little pills give her and learns to hoard them so that she can take them when she is especially anxious. She has trouble sleeping and the pills help. When the orphanage stops providing the pills, Beth finds a way to try to steal them and gets caught, leading to her loss of chess privileges.
While very few children get adopted out of the orphanage, and those who do are usually younger and “pretty,” Beth is adopted when she is 12. Alma and Allston Wheatley live in Lexington, and out of the blue, they decide to adopt her. This comes as a shock to Beth, whose life changes dramatically almost immediately. It’s clear that Mr. Wheatley is not that interested in adopting a child, but we never know why Alma wanted to or why they were willing to adopt and older child. Quickly and conveniently, Mr. Wheatley exits the scene, while Beth and Alma develop an unusual relationship. Turns out, Mrs. W is fond of the same little pills Beth took, and she drinks. Beth, now attending middle school, finds that she doesn’t fit in with the other girls, but doesn’t really care. She can now pursue her interest in chess. She can buy books and a board, and she can enroll in the state chess tournament as an unranked player. At the age of 13, she is the youngest and one of the very few females playing. Much to everyone’s surprise, she wins and again, her life takes a strange and dramatic turn. When Alma discovers there is money to be made playing in tournaments, she encourages Beth to enroll in them and helps with travel in exchange for a cut of Beth’s winnings. Beth is a prodigy and is on her way to national and international fame.
Beth faces a number of obstacles in her quest to be the best. First, her youth and sex make her an oddity in the male dominated world of chess. Yet, Tevis doesn’t demonstrate any kind of sexism shown toward Beth. In fact, a number of the older male characters seem fascinated and impressed with her. As she grows older, a few of them will become friends and more. Beth finds the press about her irritating, as it focuses more on her being a girl than on chess. She is brilliant and devours books on chess by the grandmasters. She will settle for nothing less than being the best, and this is at the root of another obstacle she faces. The anxiety she experiences while competing leads her back to pill popping and then to drinking. Mrs. W seems to aid and abet this practice. On one hand Beth knows that substance abuse can interfere with her play, but on the other, she feels like she needs the pills and booze to take the edge off.
As Beth grows older and graduates high school, she is considered one of the top chess players in the US, and when she wins the US championship, new doors open for her. She will get to play in Europe and then in the USSR, which produces the most formidable chess players in the world. Borgov especially intimidates Beth; he is a genius and has beaten her before. Lucky for Beth, a couple of fellow US players take her under their tutelage. They know she is a better player than any of them, but they also take a more disciplined approach to the study of chess and help to train her. The problem is that Beth’s substance abuse could endanger all she has worked for.
At this point in the story, Tevis re-introduces Jolene to save Beth. This part of the book is just preposterous. It isn’t clear why Jolene should give a damn about Beth since that whole relationship is woefully underdeveloped. Moreover Jolene is a weird combination of stereotype and, as a Pajiban on FB noted, a “magical Black person.” Only a white man could make up the nonsense that happens next, including a Black woman and a white woman having lunch together at a fancy restaurant in Kentucky in the 1960s. It’s like Jim Crow and segregation never existed.
While the general plot of this story is very interesting, the lack of character development is just aggravating. Tevis went to great pains to make sure that he had the facts about chess correct. He consulted a US grandmaster, and on the Netflix show they did the same. I know nothing about chess, but the scenes at the matches were interesting and tense. Yet Tevis did not give the the same attention or detail to his own characters. Funny how in a novel about chess, the author treats his characters like faceless wooden pieces on a board to be moved around at will in order to set up the next plot point he wants to cover. It seems like this is an instance where you might be better off watching the show than reading the novel.